Orkney Islands Council
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Iconic Skua brought back from the brink

Iconic Skua brought back from the brink
01 June 2017

An iconic and rare wooden racing boat once at risk of ruin has been brought back from the brink in Orkney, following eighteen months of painstaking restoration by a dedicated team of volunteers.

The joint project between the Orkney Historic Boat Society (OHBS) and Orkney Islands Council’s Museums service to restore "Skua", an elliptical-stern yole, has been funded by £2250 from Museums Galleries Scotland’s small grant scheme, and £750 from the Council’s Culture Fund.

Originally built in Deerness, Orkney in the early 1930’s by Willie Ritch for the Orkney novelist, Eric Linklater, specifically for racing in local regattas, "Skua" has been restored by volunteers from the OHBS, under expert guidance from local traditional wooden boat builder, Ian Richardson.

The restoration team started rigging her in March after months of work on her structure with completion planned for May this year. That work now complete, the impressive "Skua" can be viewed at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum in Lyness, Orkney, alongside other boats in the Museums’ collection - though the OHBS volunteers will continue to add details from the period as funds and time allow.

The yole is a traditional clinker-built sailing boat whose design evolved in Orkney. The origin is lost in the mists of time, but some features of yoles such as the cross-sectional shape and keel joint construction, can be traced back to the Norse era. Their ‘Viking’ lines are ideal for the challenging Orcadian sea conditions.

With simple lines and easy-to-construct design, the yole had been popular in Orkney and further afield since the 18th century, when it’s said that every family in Stromness had at least one, and Orkney-made boats were exported to the Western Isles. Two hundred years ago, the young John Rae learned to sail in one and had similar boats built in Canada for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Their stability and cargo carrying capacity made yoles the workhorse of the sea – they were used principally for fishing and transport and could even carry livestock.

"Skua" was built in the vibrant era of 1930’s boat racing, at a time when great efforts were being made to hone the performance of wooden vessels. Her elliptical stern meant she had more contact with the water under hard pressed sail, and therefore increased speed over many of her competitors - but the "Skua"s counterparts, bar one, have been lost for good or have left Orkney - she is the only surviving elliptical-stern yole remaining in the county.

"Skua" came into the Council’s museum collection in May 2004 in a state of disrepair, having lost a section of her stern and both bottom planks to rot. Her frame was weak and being fastened with steel nails her integrity was at risk from long term corrosion. However the majority of her top sides, being the planks seen above the waterline, were intact - although badly split through drying out over many years in storage.

It was deemed un-economic to restore her to sea-going condition, but there was determination to see her restored to conservation standards for museum display.

Gail Drinkall, OIC’s Museums’ Service curator, said:“Orkney was en route west for the Vikings, so clearly the Norse link is of immense cultural interest and significance – this type of boat carried the Vikings to Canada, Labrador and the north-east coast of the USA as well as the Celtic fringes of western United Kingdom. The spread of this boat design and its variants west from Norse territory helps tell the story of maritime ingenuity and Viking customs around the world.”

Having identified the vessel as a suitable candidate for restoration, Skua was braced and moved to Ian Richardson’s workshop in Stromness in November 2015. Following a successful bid to Museums Galleries Scotland’s small grant scheme and Orkney Islands Council’s Culture Fund in early 2016, work started in earnest in spring of that year. Last September, with her body works complete, she was transported back to Lyness for the trimmings.

Rod Daniel, Secretary of the OHBS was one of the lead volunteers on the Skua restoration in terms of hours of work. He said: “Even though there was still work to do at Lyness, the feedback we’ve had since Skua's return to Scapa Flow Visitor Centre has been very positive. We’ve all enjoyed the experience of planning and delivering on this important project and seeing the boat being restored to its former glory. Hearing the enthusiasm of the general public has been immensely rewarding.

“The past few months have been spent preparing the stays and running rigging, stepping the mast , fitting the boom and gaff - most of which have been made up from spares in storage at Lyness, as the original rig was lost. Photos from the Orkney Library and Archive were key to this phase.

“We knew we may have a bit of a challenge on our hands to get an appropriate suit of period sails for Skua. However, after some research and a bit of asking around the local seafaring community, we’ve managed to get hold of a pair of period cotton sails which have been used as templates so that we have the precise dimensions as the search for a best fit pair continues.

“The pair on display now were donated to us by a Stromness resident who remembers Skua sailing. The ‘main’ is a large jib and as such is missing her lacing and reefing thimbles. The jib is oversized but these sails are on loan from OHBS to the Museum Service, for "Skua", until we find the best available from the era.

“So anyone in Orkney with cotton sails in the attic or shed would be most welcome to contact us!”

Members of the public can again witness work in progress at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum on Tuesdays, between 11 and 4, when OHBS volunteers will be on site. "We’re always happy to talk boats," says Rod.

The next project for the volunteers to finish refurbishment work started last year on yole "Daisy". ("Daisy" was donated to the Museum by the Groat family and Willie Groat learned to sail in her. He went on to serve Orkney’s outer isles residents as bank clerk aboard the Otter Bank, the famous floating bank which operated between Orkney’s islands in the 1960’s and also included within the boat collection in the Museum.) 

Jude Callister, Visitor Services Team Leader at Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum in Lyness, says having the restoration team working on "Skua" as part of the museum’s display has enthralled visitors: "This project grew out of many years’ work at Lyness by members of OHBS. It's a great example of the contribution volunteers can make in a museum environment and really enhances the visitor experience - they love seeing folk working on the boats".

The OHBS has also recently been awarded funding from the Orkney LEADER fund – European Union funding administered locally by Orkney Islands Council - for a study to help explore the viability of establishing a ‘Boat Haven’ to serve as a base for traditional boat restoration and building training programmes, and a purpose-built space to display Orkney's unique maritime heritage. OHBS are also collaborating with the University of the Highlands and Islands and Heriott-Watt University on research of Shetland and Orcadian maritime heritage.

Chair of the OHBS, Jimmy Clouston, adds: “We’re very grateful to the Council and Museums Galleries Scotland for their support in helping conserve this piece of Scottish maritime history with links to a revered Orkney personality.”

Eric Linklater’s, son, Magnus Linklater, writes: “My father's sailing days ended with the war, but he remained proud of winning at least one race at Stromness. On his desk he kept a silver cup, commemorating the achievement, and he bought two small starter cannons, which still stand outside our house in Perthshire.

“He was always in love with the sea. When we moved to Easter Ross, he bought an open boat with an inboard motor, which had to be brought up from Crinan in Argyll. He made the journey with my brother Andro, who recalled that they only had an AA road atlas to guide them, and very nearly got caught up in the dreaded Corryvreckan whirlpool. Both Andro and I had many adventures in the boat off the Cromarty Firth, and the Linklater sailing tradition continued when we bought a little Mirror dinghy.

“It did not, however, quite measure up to the grandeur of Eric's Orkney yole.”

More about Orkney yoles

Skua is the only surviving elliptical-sterned yole remaining in Orkney. Laverne, also an elliptical sterned yole was built in Stromness by Baikie but is now based in Cullen. Esmeralda, built by Duncan's of Burray in the early 30s to lines drawn by Uffa Fox, one of the UK's top marine racing designers, remains in Orkney and is owned by OHBS members. Esmeralda, however, is a counter stern racer rather than an elliptical stern version. For this reason, Skua is a unique and iconic boat of historic significance to Orkney.

Subtle differences in shape evolved across Orkney – the South Isles boats being generally larger and heavier with the ability to sail the Pentland Firth. Technical construction details also varied across the archipelago – possibly due to the availability of good quality wood. The North Isles yoles, very few of which are still in existence, were shorter and of lighter construction. Skiffs were a variant of size and hull shape and are still sailed regularly in Westray. The rigs varied from North to South Isles. Single mast dipping lugsails were favoured in the North and the three sail - two mast Spritsail and jib - configuration in the South isles.

More about Eric Linklater

Eric Linklater was a prolific writer, publishing 23 novels, three volumes of short stories, two books of poetry, 10 plays, three autobiographies and another 23 books of essays and histories.

Born in March 1899 in Wales, his father, Robert Linklater, was a master mariner who had originally come from Orkney; his mother was Elizabeth Young, the daughter of a Swedish sea captain.

Eric, along with his sister Elspeth, would holiday in Orkney with their mother, which was the beginning of Linklater’s long lasting love with his father’s native islands. The family would later move to Aberdeen, where Linklater attended Aberdeen Grammar School. He joined the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry in 1916, hoping to be sent to ‘the front’, but was too young to go to war.

One day, left alone in an office with his own records, he altered his date of birth to make him a year older than he really was - and improved his eyesight for good measure. Soon he was sent to fight in the trenches, where he was a sniper with the Black Watch. He received a near fatal wound in April 1917 when a German machine-gun bullet blew a part of the back of his skull off. (The helmet he was wearing at the time is currently on loan to the Orkney Museum - read more about this amazing story here)

Back in Scotland, he studied medicine at Aberdeen University.

His first novel, ‘Whitemaa’s Saga’, which was mainly set in Orkney, was published in 1929 to critical acclaim. It was his 1931 novel, ‘Juan in America’ that catapulted him to fame as a writer.

In World War II he was made an officer in the Royal Engineers and worked on the defences around Scapa Flow. By this time the family had moved to Orkney, enlarging the house that his father had built by the side of the Harray Loch and naming it Merkister. It is now a hotel and the bar was Linklater’s former study. He was commissioned to write books for the Ministry of Information and started the forces newspaper in Orkney, ‘The Orkney Blast’.

After the war the Linklater family moved to Nigg. By the 1950s Linklater’s work had fallen out of fashion, but three of his novels were adapted for film; ‘Poet’s Pub’, ‘Private Angelo’ (staring Peter Ustinov in the title role) and ‘Laxdale Hall’, which was renamed ‘Scotch on the Rocks’. He was Rector of Aberdeen University from 1945-48, receiving an honorary degree the following year. He received a CBE in 1954, served as deputy lieutenant for Ross and Cromarty from 1968-73 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1971. He died in Aberdeen on 7 November 1974 aged 75 and was buried in the Harray kirkyard, overlooking his former home, Merkister, and the loch in which he loved to fish. His widow, Marjory, moved back to Orkney where she remained until her death in 1997. She was a tireless campaigner for heritage and the arts.